Following a degree in Maths and studying Sound for Film at the NFTS in the UK, Nainita Desai began her career as a sound designer on feature films for directors such as Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci, as well as assistant music engineering for Peter Gabriel. Desai moves seamlessly between working with orchestras, to scores utilizing her collection of custom-made instruments, incorporating electronics, found sound, and experimental sound design, which has informed her experimental, deeply immersive approach.
Nainita Desai is an Emmy and RTS award-winning composer and was the 2021 World Soundtrack Awards winner for Discovery of the Year. A double BIFA and Cinema Eye Honors nominee, BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and IFMCA Breakthrough Composer of the year 2019, she was described by “Empire magazine” as one of the Top 5 Composers to Watch for 2022 and won the 2022 Women In Film & TV Award for Creative Technology. She is also an elected senate member of the Ivor’s Academy, and sits on the BAFTA Film Committee and the AMPAS International Committee.
Amongst various BAFTA, Oscar and Emmy acclaimed productions, her recent projects include the interactive film-video game “Immortality” and the Netflix hit documentary “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible,” for which her score earned Emmy, HMMA and ASCAP Composer Choice nominations. Desai’s other credits include the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA and Cannes-winning feature documentary “For Sama” and the Sundance-winning “The Reason I Jump,” an immersive cinematic exploration of neurodiversity, as well as the BBC1 action thriller series “Crossfire,” the Bafta-nominated “American Murder,” the ITV crime drama series “The Tower,” the Land Mark Natural History series “Predators” for Sky/Netflix and the Interactive film/video game “Telling Lies.”
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Tara Karajica talked to Nainita Desai about scoring “The Deepest Breath” by Laura McGann that had its first festival bow in the “Premieres” section of the festival, her career thus far, feminism and film and what she is up next.
What made you want to become a film composer?
Nainita Desai: When I was very young, I used to play musical instruments and I was always improvising as a child on the piano or on the guitar. I discovered film at a very young age as well and used to run the film club at school. I then went to University and used to review films for the student newspaper. I was very interested in sound, sound effects and sound for film and telling stories through sound. I started working in the film industry as a sound designer, and working with foleys and dialogue editing. I loved music from a very early age, and I was always composing and building up my recording studio at home. I didn’t realize that composing for film was actually something that you could make a career out of. As a teenager, I loved film soundtracks. I discovered Ennio Morricone and Spaghetti Westerns when I was very young. Those soundtracks were the first LPs that my parents bought. And then, I discovered the French New Wave and Luc Besson’s films, which led me to French film composers like Éric Serra and then Michel Legrand and Alexandre Desplat. It was the music in films that piqued my interest. So, my passion for film music was a very organic process. Working as a sound designer on feature films and in music engineering for Peter Gabriel led me to meeting a music supervisor who gave me a break offering me my first job in TV and from there it was baptism by fire. So, even though it was always my passion and my dream to be a film composer, I kind of fell into it. It was my first opportunity to actually be paid to compose the score for a show and though the road was a bumpy one from that moment on, I was a film and TV composer!
How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world?
N.D.: Well, I always think of music for film and TV as you’re capturing the underbelly of the true heart of the film. And, the music I always feel is the hidden character. So, I’m scoring a big fantasy adventure series at the moment and there’s a lot of music carrying the story and taking you through the whole journey and experience of the characters. And, if you take away the music, the audience doesn’t know how to feel. So, I consider myself to be a bit of a study of human character, a psychologist, because to be a composer for film, I think you have to understand what it means to be human. And, those are the stories that really interest me and that I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on in my past few projects, where you really have to understand the psyche and what makes people do what they do and understand human emotion, character and relationships. I think the hardest thing to do as a film composer is to make the score flow and seem as though you don’t notice the music. Sometimes, the music has to be very bold and have its own character. It’s like another character in the show. And, sometimes, the music has to be very subtle, but also say a lot narratively and storywise. So, it’s quite a challenge to do that in a way that the audience doesn’t even notice it. And, sometimes, when you don’t notice the score, it can be so impactful as much as when you do note it on very loud shouty scores. So, both styles of scoring are very challenging and fascinating.
How do you get in the zone? Does your creative process differ from project to project? Do you have rituals when you’re composing?
N.D.: In terms of rituals, I have to be very organized. My environment and my studio have to be fairly tidy, even on my desktop, my files have to be organized to allow for the creative chaos to go on in my mind when I’m composing. And, I do have to get in the zone. So, on a daily basis, I try not to work on more than two projects in the same day. It’s not that I get confused or mixed up between projects, but it takes a while to get in the zone. And so, for me, early mornings are very good for composing or late at night because those are the times where I don’t get disturbed so much. In terms of my process, I like to come on board as early as possible on a project so that I can experiment. Communication with the director and the editor is very important. For me, a great director is someone who communicates not necessarily in terms of music or speaks the language of music, but someone who can speak enthusiastically about the characters and their story and what the film means to them and what they are trying to convey. That can conjure up a treasure trove of musical inspiration in me when I listen to them talking. Sometimes, when all I do is listen to a director just talking about their project to me, I can instantly hear music in my head, and that can be very, very inspiring. I then develop a sound palette, a unique sound world for each project and themes for the characters after listening, reading the script or watching an early rough cut. I will start experimenting writing themes, writing tracks, and then going backwards and forwards throughout the edit. I enjoy pushing things to the limit of what’s sonically possible because I’m striving to serve the film and its needs – that’s the most important thing alongside the director’s vision.
How did you get on board The Deepest Breath? What drew you to this story?
N.D.: It was the producer, John Battsek, who actually contacted me and sent me the original pitch deck of the treatment and the proposal for the film. I read the story, and thought that it had huge creative potential. I’ve never worked on a project quite like this and it sounded like a beautiful story. That was interesting to me, because I had done a previous film, Fourteen Peaks, about mountaineering, and this was the opposite, but also very similar, because it’s about human beings pushing themselves to the limit of what they’re capable of emotionally, mentally and physically. And so, I was really interested in exploring the potential of what these free divers do to push themselves to the limit. It helps me understand who we are as human beings and what was also beautiful about the film is that it’s a love story as well. I was also interested in exploring the immersiveness of the beauty, the stillness and the danger of the deep of the ocean. And, you really see and hear that in the opening titles; you’ve got the power of nature and the elements against the individual human being told in this underwater world.
Given the gorgeous seascapes combined with the deeply interior nature of the free-diver’s journey and the enormous stakes of this film, the score had to traverse a wide emotional spectrum, weaving together the parallel stories of Alessia and Stephen, capturing the thrilling danger of the sport whilst also capturing their nascent relationship against a stunning underwater backdrop. Can you talk about scoring for it?
N.D.: I was interested in capturing all that musically, but also it’s about this woman, Alessia, and the joys of following her journey, her successes, her inspiration, her hopes from the positive energy of when Stephen, her her partner sets up his diving center in Dahab, off the coast of Egypt. And so, musically, I was trying to capture the warmth of romance between them, and then the thrill of competing in the world of free-diving, which is incredibly dangerous. So, you’ve got these two different, wide emotional spectrums to cover. I worked very closely with the director, Laura McGann, and she was wonderful to collaborate and work with because she would send me these long Spotify playlists. We would spend hours discussing via WhatsApp and Zoom what she liked about the pieces, what approach we would take, what we were trying to capture storywise and emotionally for the characters.
We created two different sonic palettes for our two lead characters, Steven and Alessia, to reflect their inner motivations and personalities. And overall, the sound palette was primarily a small string ensemble with piano, voice and electronics. And, for Alessia, this young, energetic, vibrant Italian woman who’s a champion free-diver, we decided that her sound would really be a female voice, but because the whole film is based on free diving and breath, using the air in your lungs, the approach with which I took the voice using the human voice was done in a very breathy way. So, that was fun. There’s a scene earlier on the film, where she’s twelve years old, learning to free dive, so I brought in a twelve-year old girl to sing on the score for that one cue. And then, with Stephen, this young man who’s finding himself and there’s a lot of energy and wonder and drive to his personality. So, I used a minimal, chamber string approach, and the cello was his sound. Halfway through the film, there’s this wonderful moment where Alessia and Stephen meet and fall in love for the first time, and both their sounds come together and intertwine in their love theme, like a call and response kind of feel with the voice and the cello coming together, which is really, really special. And then, there are other moments in the film where you have Alessia’s freediving rival, Hanako, this Japanese woman who is very dynamic and exciting and has her own theme. There are other moments in the film, particularly towards the end, the emotional climax of the film with this twelve-minute diving sequence, which is filled with tension. So, I brought in lots of music and sound design elements within the music, and it’s quite sparse and you can hear the sound of the heartbeat. There’s a lot to tell in the story with these characters. It’s a very emotional end sequence, which was, again, a big challenge to write, to treat the characters with respect and dignity and be uplifting at the end as well. So, it was quite a challenging score to write.
Do you have a favorite project among the ones that you’ve scored so far?
N.D.: Every current project is a favorite project. That’s an interesting question. I loved scoring The Deepest Breath. It was a challenging score to write, to find the right tone. My previous score for 14 Peaks was great fun as well. That was very symphonic and epic. I like working on projects that push me into musical genres that I’ve never written before, that I’ve never worked in before. So, at the moment, I’m working on a fantasy series and that is such a big challenge. I’ve never done anything like that. So, I think it’s the big challenges that push me out of my comfort zone that I enjoy the most. It’s those projects where I feel that I’ve grown musically as a composer and that have made me grow as a human being as well that are my favourite. For Sama was an amazing film to score. I was on that for about one and a half years; you have to find a way to truly connect with projects of that duration. I think that’s pushing me into new challenges and new boundaries that I’m sort of edging towards because I feel it helps me grow as a composer. I love working with teams and you work very intensely and closely with people and then, at the end, it’s like the end of a relationship. That’s why it’s so great to be able to go somewhere like Sundance where The Deepest Breath has premiered because it’s a great way to reunite and meet with the team. Some of them I’ve never even met, or maybe only met once or twice, because we’re working remotely, on the Internet. Even if the project itself is not that successful, it’s those relationships that you develop that make it really, really enjoyable.
When you were starting out as a film composer, I imagine that there were not many female role models in terms of film composing. Can you talk about about those days and, in comparison to now?
N.D.: Well, it’s interesting to reflect upon how things have changed for the better and for the positive. I mean, when I started, as you say, there were very few female composers. I think there was Anne Dudley and Rachel Portman and maybe one or two others. Elizabeth Parker is someone that I admired. She used to do a lot of work for the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I’ve never seen myself from the outside in. I’ve always seen myself from the inside out. I’ve never let the colour of my skin or gender stop me from doing what I want to do. I always wanted to work in film and be a composer. So, it was tough. It wasn’t easy. At the same time, I’m grateful for the journey that I’ve been on.
And, only in the last five years have I noticed a difference with the efforts of so many charities and industry organizations like BAFTA, AMPAS, the AWFC and so many others out there. The fact that the Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC) exists is a wonderful thing, but I also look forward to a day when it doesn’t need to exist as well. I think it’s great to have women coming together as a community where we support each other, and we push each other up the ladder. We work up the ladder together and come together as a community and celebrate each other’s accomplishments through organizations like the Alliance For Women Film Composers. This industry is hard enough as it is; it’s highly competitive and we don’t choose the easy path in life; nothing worth achieving is ever easy, I think. I think it’s important that we celebrate each other and come together and forge friendships and collaborations. Because together, we’re greater than the sum of our parts.
I’ve noticed how film directors and producers are actively wanting to employ female composers and I think that it’s only for the better. I think the more voices we have, whether you’re a man or a woman or whatever culture or country you come from gives us richer forms of storytelling and stories because of our differences. I think it only enriches society and culture with different stories from different storytellers. There is not any just one way to tell a story. I used to get asked by people: “Can you write action music?” Why does action music have to have a gender? Music is music, no matter who or where it comes from. And, that’s what’s exciting to me.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and a favorite female filmmaker and someone who you would really love to work with?
N.D.: Off the top of my head – I really loved Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. One of the most beautiful, moving film I have watched in years. The use of music is so clever and effective because there’s no score apart from two or three pieces of music in the film. And, when you hear them, they have so much impact. It’s an incredible film. I also admire Lynne Ramsey’s works – a truly ground-breaking body of work. And, I’d also love to score a Bond film!
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
N.D.: Feminism is someone who advocates for women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. So, as someone who supports feminists, I guess I am a feminist. I believe in equality. I was brought up as a second generation British Asian and my parents are Indian. Traditionally, women in India have never been treated equal to men. And they still aren’t. We have a long way to go and I’m very lucky and grateful to have been born and brought up in the UK. I was the victim of racism growing up and I was treated differently because of my gender. As a composer, I’m working more and more with female directors and teams, which is a great thing.
What would you say your sound is?
N.D.: I like to think that I don’t have a “sound” as such, but I like to think that because I write in so many different musical genres that the common thread running through my music and through my scores, is that I like to write for multi-layered complex characters. I try to imbue the stories and characters that I compose for with sensitivity, understanding and empathy. And, that is something that I like to think runs through my scores. Having a complexity and a nuance to reflect the complexity of human character and that it has a sophistication that’s multi-layered. I’ve worked with so many different palettes of sounds and genres, and that’s what I enjoy – bringing out the different aspects of my personality through my music, from project to project, whether it’s musicals, songs, epic symphonic scores, electronic scores, hybrid scores, or classical music. I like to think that people can’t put me in a box musically. That’s what keeps me excited and curious about telling stories and music. That always pushes me to write in different ways and with different subjects. But there is an emotional heart to the music that I compose, and it is important to me to treat the stories with authenticity and integrity. I think that’s what my sound is – that I will be true to the story and the characters.
According to you, what is the best score ever? And, what is your favorite one?
N.D.: I don’t have a favorite score. I have a wide taste in music, and genres and scores. But, at the moment, one of theTV scores, I think, that really stood out to me was Nicholas Britell’s Succession. I think it’s got great versatility and he’s a master of using a theme and writing so many wonderful variations of it that can carry you through a whole series. Thomas Newman is a great composer and I’m a huge fan of his music. I love the emotional ambivalence in his scores. And, he has such a strong musical identity as well. His personality has a strong stamp on his scores, whether he’s scoring a Bond movie, or whether he’s scoring an emotional drama such as Revolutionary Road. But then, I’m also a huge fan of Ennio Morricone, John Williams and so many other composers out there. The list is endless.
What are your next projects?
N.D.: I’m working on a couple of video games, which I’m really excited about. In film and TV, I’m working on a series for James Cameron, the BBC and National Geographic. I’m working on a wildlife series for Apple TV, and I have a crime drama coming out on ITV – season 2 of The Tower – and a fantasy action series, which will be coming out hopefully at the end of the year. I have Funny Woman, a six-part comedy drama series coming out on Sky TV and on NBCU in the US on Feb 8th. I’ve never scored anything like it. It’s a period comedy drama set in London in 1964, with a lot of ‘60s songs, starring Gemma Arterton, about a young woman who comes down to London from the north of England to make her fame and fortune as a TV star. So, that’s really fun, charming and very different from what people know me for. I also have some other feature documentaries. So, quite a few things that I can’t say too much about!
Photo credits: Courtesy of Nainita Desai.